Exvangelical is the catchall term for those who move away from American evangelicalism—often citing trauma and disillusionment as the reason for their deconstruction. For some, deconstruction means abandoning faith. Others experience a reconstruction, but they still struggle with institutional failings.
Journalist Jon Ward falls into the latter of these camps. In April, Ward released Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation, a spiritual memoir that recounts his exit from evangelicalism. Readers follow Ward through his childhood, sheltered from mainstream ‘secular’ culture, to feeling lost as a young adult, breaking from evangelicalism, and rebuilding the foundation for his faith.
By combining personal vulnerability and investigative journalism, Ward confronts the paradoxes and hypocrisies of his evangelical experience.
To Ward, the evangelical movement emphasizes an emotional anti-intellectualism. Ward grew up attending Covenant Life Church in Washington, D.C.’s Maryland suburbs. He describes encounters with powerful evangelical leaders like C.J. Mahaney, Louie Giglio, and Josh Harris. Mahaney was a spiritual mentor to Ward and the founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries. In 2012, Mahaney and other evangelical leaders at Sovereign Grace became embroiled in scandal for allegedly covering sexual abuse in the church.
Ward recalls how Mahany used emotion and spiritual experiences for control. From a young age, Ward was told to follow God’s will — “what is represented as God’s will is really just the views and preferences of those in charge,” he wrote. Ultimately, surrendering your will leads to surrendering your independence of thought, he argued.
Life in an insular Christian community impacted Ward’s ability to interpret complex crises outside his church bubble, he now believes. The HIV/AIDS crisis was viewed as an example of divine judgment for sinful behavior, while critical thought was seen as unhealthy questioning of God. Charismatic services also overemphasized emotional experience—believing they could conjure God through skillful music and dark lights. Ward identifies the root of evangelical anti-intellectualism as a spiritual experience of the heart, as opposed to the head. Ultimately, this hyper-spiritualized worldview is rooted in self-absorbed experiences.
Ward argues that power combined with viewing the church as a persecuted minority created the foundation for Evangelical voters’ embrace of Donald Trump. When we let politics drive theology, we risk placing our hope in a political figure and seeing our opponents as ‘the other’ instead of uniquely human.
Some readers will appreciate Ward’s criticism of Trump, but he seems to adopt the same moral certainty he condemned from his childhood. Ward sees Evangelical Trump voters as morally tainted, recounting how the Trump era fostered contempt within his family. However, Ward admits that he “often burned too hot” during the Trump years. But his almost black-and-white stance on Trump is a reminder: We’ll always be tainted by our inherent biases, despite attempts to be open-minded.
Those who grew up in an Evangelical subculture will resonate with Ward’s story. Ward’s work is less about how the Evangelical movement failed a generation, but about how it failed him personally. We’re different from when we attended Sunday school, watched Veggie Tales (at least for my generation), and lived with our parents. Looking back, we can accept there were issues with what we were taught. But we shouldn’t let tensions with our past distort a grace that met us at a different time.
To navigate our polarized world is a daunting task. Walking with Christ doesn’t mean avoidance of people who think differently, prioritizing emotion over critical thought, and escaping hardships through spiritual experiences. The charismatic low-church experience is often spontaneous and based on the whims of the pastor and worship leaders—meaning there is little-to-no vetting. Instead, we should lean into the liturgies, creeds, and prayers that generations of Christians shaped and tested.
Ward’s work stands as a testament to the power of nuance, where the pursuit of truth becomes an act of empathy and compassion. But it also diagnoses the question of why so many people subscribe to the “Exvangelical” movement. Christianity is a worldview that requires intellectual nurturing and development beginning at childhood. Christians who emphasize emotion and modern America over historical Christianity and tested truths stand on a foundation of sand. As the parable illustrates, when the rain, wind, and floods come, only the house built on the rock prevails.